Da Lat – The Central Highlands of Vietnam

Da Lat..the flower city, a breath of fresh air.

Da Lat, the flower city, is located in the central highlands of Vietnam and it is a breath of fresh air. We arrived at our very pink hotel, the Dalat Boutique, with it’s great views of the city below, with enough daylight to wander out and about, down the hill along twisting streets to Lake Xuan Huong, in the center of the city. At the Lake we rented bicycles to ride the 7 km trail that circles the late and that took us through beautiful flower gardens. With spring in the air and on the heels of Tet there were plenty of floral arrangements. In keeping with the “got space…fill it” philosophy of Vietnam, this well used path, was a bikers obstacle course full of runners, walkers and sightseers, and even the odd motorcycles.

Other thank the crowded path it was a lovely ride and gave us a change to get the lay of the land in central DaLot. The center of Da Lat is very busy with traffic circles, open air markets, narrow lanes, busy streets and a hodgepodge of buildings mixing French colonial with Vietnamese homes, stores, malls big and small and myriads of street vendors.

Examples of French Colonial architecture, like a Catholic Church, are interspersed with new construction, much of which fails to conform to any particular style and visual collisions happen on every corner. We saw a building that resembles the tip of “The Pickle”, London’s city hall and just behind it was a communications tower build to resemble the Eiffel Tower.

We reached the end of our bike ride as the sun set, returning the rentals we struck off on foot toward the night market. Hoping for some delicious street food we soon found ourselves faced with the prospect of crossing the road connected to a traffic circle. A near impossibility given the dangerous swirl of buses, cars, trucks and motor bikes. Our weeks in Vietnam have taught us that however counter intuitive it may seem you cross by launching yourself at the vehicles and as soon as they pass you advance as many steps as possible until the next one zooms by. By some miraculous process you go around the cars and the motorcycles go around you. Repeating this process you eventually arrive on the other side of the street shaken but not scathed. It’s like a very complicated game of dodgeball. The other option is to attach yourself to a group of locals, ignoring the traffic and keeping your eyes glued on their movements which you copy through the river of traffic.

The night market was packed, blocks and blocks of open stalls selling everything under the sun. We managed to scrounge a spot for ourselves at a street food spot with their pint sized chairs and tables which are fine until you try to rise up out of them. We paid a pretty penny for our supper, mostly bbqued meat and vegetables which were good but definitely foreigner priced.

Dalat is an outdoor adventure city, perfectly situated in the highlands, surrounded by pine forests, and blessed with natural beauty. For about $25 CAD each we signed up for a small group tour and were picked up at our hotel for a day long trip to the areas surrounding Dalat.

Our first stop was Robin mountain where we rode a gondola to the top and had views to the farmlands below. The area around Dalat is densely agricultural and hothouses stretch as far as the eye can see.

Back in the van, we followed the twisting mountain road to the Truk Lam Zen monastery the biggest Zen monastery in Vietnam. Here

the monks and nuns have built a beautiful series of gardens and trails, including some really interesting bonsai, all linking the various temples and pagodas.

Our next stop was Datania falls accessible by foot or by a much more novel means, a self operated bob sled on a narrow track. We opted for the sled ride and whisked our way down to the falls. At the falls we saw some folks who had repeled down the whitewater, and we thought we were extreme by taking the sleds. Fortunately the sleds also took you back up the mountain and at one point if was pretty vertical with the track taking over the controls so you just had to lie back and stare at the deep blue sky.

A few miles from the bob-sled/falls was the “Glass Pagoda”, which on closer inspection is made from small bits of broken china and glass. An elaborate design it is a real draw for both Buddhist pilgrims and sightseers. You are able to climb the internal staircase of the pagoda and from there you see the farms below.

An odd little stop was at a “Puppy Farm” whose claim to fame was being a breeding kennel for more than 100 breeds of dogs. Not really my cup of tea, I didn’t like to see so many dogs (no puppies) in large but cement floored kennels or small individual cages. Still not sure why this was on the tour except right next door and included isn’t he price of admission was another beautiful garden, well worth visiting.

Saving the best for last we parked the van at the bottom of Langbiang mountain, the highest point in the Da Lat area. Leaving the van we were loaded into a very old, utilitarian jeep to make the steep climb to the top.

The mountain is named after a tragic love story between Lang and Biang, young lovers, and like Romeo and Juliet they were denied the chance to marry by their rival parents, ending in their double suicide. The elephants that were present cried so hard a waterfall, aptly named “Elephant Waterfall” formed nearby.

At the top there are a number of attractions like a craft shop by a local indigenous group, pony rides, hiking paths, a restaurant etc. The views alone were worth the trip up in the clanking grinding jeep.

Tour over we spent our third and final day in Da Lat revisiting the city center and visiting a place know as the “Crazy House”, which was only half a block from our very pink hotel.

A most unusual attraction it was built by Mra Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of Ho Chi Min’s right hand man. She studied architecture in Russia but her creation certainly doesn’t resemble anything you picture as coming out of Russia. The Crazy House is in fact a hotel in addition to be a busy tourist attraction with dozens of bus loads of folks visiting everyday. The place is not finished and has an organic propensity toward expansion not unlike the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Like Gaudí Nga’s vision is a chaotic construction of intertwining buildings all connected by tangled walkways suspended mid-air giving it the air of a tree house.

There are a couple of restuarants and coffee bars, the rental rooms are all named and overall the place looks like Gaudí fed steroids to the Hobbits. There are giant cobwebs, oversized mushrooms, aquarium motifs and a museum describing Nga’s journey.

It was hard to leave the beautiful city of Da Lat, the fresh cool air, the gorgeous scenery and the rural vibe made the “Flower City” well worth the visit.

Hoi An – Ancient City of Vietnam

Beautiful, poetic Hoi An

After leaving Halong Bay we took a short flight to Da Nang, situated along the western coast of Vietnam about mid-way to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). Da Nang is Viet Nam’s 5th largest city and for most travellers it is the entry point for both Hue and Hoi An, ancient cities that have been recognized as UNESCO Heritage Sites. With more time I would have travelled more slowly by train from the north to central Vietnam. As it was with three days to visit the area it was just enough to get to know Hoi An and enjoy some of the interesting history, diverse culture and delicious food. Da Nang and Hue will have to wait for another trip.

We stayed just outside of the ancient city which was a blessing given the hoards of tourists and the number of people who work and live in the area. The Prince Hotel is great if your there, the staff is friendly and helpful, the rooms are clean, comfortable, the service is great and the breakfast good and at $29.00 CAD the price was right too.

About a twenty minute walk to the edge of the old town it isn’t long before we were emersed in the interesting history of Hoi An. For a small entrance fee you receive a ticket which entitles you to visit 5 of the more famous merchant homes and private temples and gardens in the Ancient City, a rich fusion of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and European influences that date back to the 16th century. A major trading port,people came and went and stayed on as merchants, building the old wooden fronted merchant homes that you see today.

The walkways and bridges that connect the various neighbourhoods of Hoi An, were designated areas such as the Japanese or Chinese areas. The 200 year old shophouses are now home to boutiques, craft-stores, restaurants and bars, whatever brings them in to shop and to spend.

The Japanese Bridge is on of the most famous and connected the Japanese community to the Chinese community in the 16th century. Most merchants built dimly lit homes with dark wood doors and panelling with shops in the front of the house.

At night the shops are festooned with multi-coloured lanterns and range from souvenirs to boutique clothing stores. So fun to wander about at night and watch the dinners, shoppers and strollers enjoy the festive streets. Along the river are walkways and a favourite thing to do, after enjoying some street food, is a lantern boat ride in a sea of long boats and lanterns. The night market features many of the foods that are enjoyed by visitors and locals alike but I’m afraid that neither quail nor frog was not on my list of things to try. The lady selling the frogs told me I should “change my mind”. She’s probably right, but not when it comes to frogs. All I could think of was Kermit.

A great thing to do in Hoi An is to take a cooking class, which was actually a whole day long adventure that started with shopping for and buying the freshest ingredients at the morning market. Our guide/cooking teacher (wearing the white ball cap below) led the ten of us skillfully through the crowded market and down to the river where we caught a boat downstream to where the cooking class was to be held. A really fun way to get to class, the longboat that we boarded took us past homes, fishers, under bridges and into the delta.

Once off the long boat we were led to a smaller dock in some mangroves where we teetered our way into teacup boats, paddled by the locals, all part of a show put on for the tourists. It was so fun and our paddlers seemed to really enjoy the reactions of the passengers as they spun the boats in dizzying circles, rocking them precariously back and forth for effect and then a number of men, alone in their tea cups were demonstrating how fast the boats could spin and what a wake they could produce when rocked to their gunnels. All done to K Pop music like Gang-am Style. What a hoot. We were taken up some of the narrower passage ways in the mangroves and were able to see the mussels clinging to the roots and the boats laden with tree fronds for weaving baskets, clothing and kinds of household items.

When we arrived at our cooking class we found ourselves in a very clean and organized outdoor kitchen. All the ingredients we had purchased early were cleaned, measured and placed at individual stations. We made two different kinds of Goi Cuon (salad rolls) with Nuoc Leo (peanut Hoisin Sauce). Then, Bang Xeo (sizzling savoury crepes) resembling tacos were made from rice flour, spices and coconut milk, dipped in Nuoc Cham sauce. Our Mi xao hai san (seafood stir fried noodles) was delicious and was followed up by the final dish Pho Bo Hà Nội (Hanoi style rice noodle soup with beef). Learning how to make the sauces meant learning how to combine seasonings, spices and herbs for ultimate flavours. Best of all we got to eat everything we made.

Marble Mountain and My Son are two sites that are generally combined to make a full day outing that takes you back to Da Nang and gives you a glimpse of this very modern city that even has a giant Ferris wheel, aka the London Eye.

Marble Mountains are just that and all along the streets leading into Da Nang were shops selling marble statues in a range of sizes. Marble Mountains are five mountains riddled with natural caves that were made into Hindu and later Buddhist temples. You can climb to the top on uneven stairs or take an elevator to the top. We took the stairs and once at the top is when the hike really began. A series of paths join the various levels at the top of the mountain, much larger in scale than I had anticipated. Up stairs, down stairs, over bridges and through caves that led to other caves we saw several pagodas and Buddhist statues. At one point the rocky uneven staircase gave way to what was essentially a straight up scramble through a narrow chimney like passage where man made notches in the rocks helped us pull our way up and out of the cave.

The lady below was selling incense to the pilgrims who came to worship in the caves, temples and pagodas. I offered not to buy the incense but to pay for her picture as I loved her beautiful face. So full of character and a simple joy for life she seemed quite pleased to pose for me. Inside the caves in the Smokey incense din were noviciates who came to prey and worship.

Once through the keyhole passage we made it to the top of the Marble Mountain we had ascended and were rewarded with a great view of Da Nang, the other Marble Mountains and of course the beautiful country side. I’ve included a photo of what you might consider to be a stairway.

Our hired driver waited for us at the base of our Marble Mountain and once we had some restorative food and drink we continued on our way to My Son, an ancient site of the Champa kingdom which lasted from the 2nd century to the 15th. The site itself is a beautiful wooded area with flat meandering trails that take you to different clusters of ruins. Along the way there are huge craters that are reminders of the bombs dropped by the American B-52’s. You are cautioned not to stray from the path as there are unexploded mines in the area. Some of the Cham ruins were reduced to rubble by the bombing.

Our final night in Hoi An and one last wander through the streets to soak in the beauty of the light cast by the lanterns. Hoi An is a poetic gem and definitely if you are going to Vietnam you must go to Hoi An.